After “Valerian”, director Luc Besson has been balancing the different essences of life with his company in financial trouble for a short time. Personally he was being attacked because of supposed conduct. And a film that was supposed to be his big return to large film making simply tanked. In personification, “Valerian” wasn’t bad. It was perfectly on par with “The Fifth Element” but made in a different time. “Lucy” right before had shown with the right actress despite a slightly incomplete script that the visceral nature of the director was still there. The biggest issue, not to get too industry about the failure of “Valerian”, is that in the US, STX Films pretty much released it cold with no anticipation. And it failed. With his new film “Anna”, the trailer was phenomenal building up the aspect of a new action girl in Sascha Luss. Besson, despite anything, has the ability to create wonderfully strong female characters while still engaging in the beauty and the world of modeling he seems to love so much. The trailer simply teased one major scene which in retrospect is interestingly enough a lipnus test. “Anna” approaches what “Red Sparrow”tried to do but with a blank canvas and not Jennifer Lawrence. Within this construct, you have no preconceived notions of who Anna is because that is not her name. This is why you can buy more into the idea of it. Now while much of the movie tries to play to certain spy quotients, it is the nature of freedom that rings true even as the film is set right after the fall of the Soviet Union per se. The KGB essence here is interestingly done both in its recruiting but also the showing of Russia right after that fall. It doesn’t go easy on American intelligence either. It almost makes the point that you are under the thumb of power no matter where you are.
Sascha Luss balances this nicely as “Anna” but it helps that she has a couple actors working against her, who despite that their characters are a bit thin and sometimes more of sexual playthings to Anna than actual connections is interesting. It works because it is a reversal of what was the norm 20 years ago. Cillian Murphy plays one of his more mainstream roles and shows a level of charm and cool we haven’t seen on screen from him in awhile. Luke Evans, right off “The Alienist”, creates the right amount of patriotism while understanding this girl he recruited. Anna’s girlfriend in the modeling world creates the right amount of offset in social representation to show that identity is simply a construct depending what you want in life. It is not a criticism on anything at times with either sex except a certain degree of survival and understanding. Helen Mirren has the most interesting role in that of KGB overseer. This is the most hidden she has been with a sense of cunning, humor and drama that sometimes Besson can get out of his actors. “Red” for Mirren was play. Here she is doing some magnified work. Besson still has it. The action sequences are visceral. He can do it with a smaller amount of money but he likes the toys of big film production. The film is fun to watch, plotted decently, stylized cool (watch out for an INXS song montage) and, while not Besson’s best, far from his worse and continually shows his focus for talent. Initially this reviewer thought this might be a retooling or telling of “Matilda”, the child Natalie Portman played in Besson’s “The Professional” as a grown up assassin. A key plot turn in the movie has Sascha wearing a black bob that has harkings back to that character. Alas “Anna” will probably be lost since, for likely reasons, Summit/Lionsgate released it cold. A movie is a movie, even when it is not….that doesn’t make this one any less entertaining.
By Tim Wassberg
The essence of the romantic comedy in many ways has been lost to the deluge of blockbuster comic book films and spectacle. Or the comedy tends to be too high concept or borderline gag related without reverting to the simple set up of traditional boy meets girl, boy loses girl…they realize their mistake and find that common ground for a would-be happy ending. The ironic aspect is that one of the people that does have the pulse on the heart of this aspect is Seth Rogen, mostly known for his stoner comedies. There is an every man quality to Rogen but like “Zach & Miri Make A Porno”, “Neighbors” or “Knocked Up”, it is always a trajectory of the underdog. Despite previous co-stars there was always a sense of perhaps pity in a way or a drum tap to play the joke which he gladly takes. It is what makes him such a redeemable lead. “Long Shot” works in many structures because he is not the lead here…Charlize Theron is….
This balances it completely since Charlize knows the role she is playing but still brings her intensity to it without being schmaltzy. One actually feels in many points that she is falling for Rogen’s Fred. The set up and the token Rogen set up that slams him to the floor just so he can crawl his way back to her heart is worn, yet tried and true…and feels natural here. The story feels fairly organic in as much as the situation can be which is part of its charm. What however really feels tender and not forced is the small moments between them, either on a couch watching a movie or hanging out after they almost get bombed…and then in the sequence where they actually do get bombed (a necessary Rogen movie trademark). What comes out of that latter sequences is some of Charlize’s loosest spontaneous performances in years…especially one where she defuses a situation hiding behind a desk.
Letting her hair down so to speak seems incredibly freeing since one can still see the icy brilliance of Theron but, by doing this vulnerable comedy, there shows as usual such a wide range in what she can do. The last time there was that vulnerability in such a large way was “Sweet November” (but that film was a inherent tragedy). The best dramatic actors can do comedy brilliantly if given the chance and the right script. Most aren’t seen that way or offered those parts. Theron and Rogen are both producers on the film so it seemed a very conscious choice on both their parts to make this film. Theron tried “Gringo” last year in more of a supporting part for what was inherently a dark subversive comedy. The reason “Long Shot” works in many ways but also has some great laugh-out-loud moments is that it is honest and truthful in what it is and makes no qualms about it. It is undeniably romantic in many ways while still being brutally human which sometimes is the hardest thing to pull off. Of course, these movies are bound to have a little melodrama (as this one does at certain points but it is offset by Rogen’s deprecating lines). But that brief schmaltz is just the price of admittance…and that’s OK.
By Tim Wassberg